‘Silence’ And Shūsaku Endō’s Christianity

Shūsaku Endō‘s Silence is a remarkable religious novel, one whose close reading and discussion in a philosophy classroom pays rich dividends. This week marks the concluding sessions of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class’ discussion of Endō’s novel; I can enthusiastically recommend it–in whole or in part–for use in classes on epistemology and philosophy of religion. This is because the novel–ostensibly a historical work set in seventeenth century Japan as the systematic persecution of Christians commenced following a brief flourishing of the faith–is at heart about the nature of faith, its relationship to knowledge and belief, the nature of ‘commitment’ to religious ideals and beliefs, the possibility of voluntarism about belief, the relationship between belief and action, the relationship between organized and ‘personal’ religion, between moral sentiments and religious strictures, between geographically and nationally specific cultures and supposedly universal belief systems, and so on.

Endō’s novel also proves the truth of the wisdom contained in the claim that the doubts of the religious and the agnostic or atheist are more interesting than the certainty of the believer. In this regard, observant Christians will find the book just as provocative as atheists or agnostics might. As Charles Peirce had noted, doubt is that irritation which leads to inquiry. And that is certainly one thing that Endō’s novel does; it prompts inquiry and investigation. It creates more doubt in turn, and prompts that most useful activity of all: self-examination. (My classroom discussions with my students about the philosophical issues the novel raises and examines have often been quite rich even as I suspect that, as usual, some students are simply not keeping up with the reading and are thus unwilling and unable to participate or contribute.)

Silence is the story of Sebastião Rodrigues, a missionary who travels to Japan to ‘rescue’ a Christianity sought to be driven out from Japan, and finds himself the latest target of the campaign to do so. Rodrigues takes inspiration from Christ through his trials and travails at the hands of his Japanese tormentors–even as the events around him shake his faith like never before. The determination of his inquisitors to make him an apostate makes Rodrigues sense he will become, rather than Christ, Judas instead; he will not be the defender and promulgator of his faith, but its betrayer instead. As his greatest trial approaches, Rodrigues comes to understand that the man he had imagined the Judas to his Christ is closer to him than he had imagined, that his dislike for him, his failure to feel sympathy or empathy for him, is his greatest failing as a Christian.The novel’s provocative claim–under one interpretation–is that he becomes a better Christian by becoming Judas. And that is because in doing so, he is better able to understand someone, Christ, and something, Christian faith, that he had imagined himself, arrogantly, to understand all too well before his trials began.

Rodrigues worries that God is silent; his most powerful realization is that God speaks through man, and man alone.

Chaim Potok’s ‘The Chosen’: Talking About Religion, Identity, And Culture In A Philosophy Classroom

Last week, the students in this semester’s edition of my Philosophical Issues in Literature class began reading and discussing Chaim Potok‘s The Chosen. (We have just concluded our discussions of Chapters 1-5 i.e., Book One, which details the initial encounters between Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, the book’s central protagonists.) I had not read the novel before the semester began, and had placed it on this semester’s reading list–the organizing theme is ‘the religious novel and its intersections with identity and culture’–on the recommendations of some friends who had. Thus far, this has been an exceedingly good move; I can wholeheartedly recommend the book to any other philosophers looking to place fiction on their reading lists.

This is because, as might be suspected, the book provides ample material to spark philosophical discussion in the classroom–Potok was a philosopher by training, and it shows. I had not looked at his biography too closely before the semester began, but once I began reading the book, it was blindingly obvious to me that the author had either studied philosophy extensively or was an academic himself. (The central give-away for me was the mentioning of Russell and Whitehead‘s Principia Mathematica by Danny Saunders as he describes his intellectual interests and career plans to Reuven.) Literary critics might complain about the heavy-handedness of the symbolism employed in these preliminary chapters but philosophy teachers will not complain about the fairly explicit invitation to delve into the questions of how religious faith and practice inform our sense of self, what their limits are, and how intra-group differences can be more sharply drawn than even inter-group ones. Many of my students come from backgrounds where religion has formed an integral part of their upbringing; some have attended Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish parochial schools so they can relate quite easily to the yeshiva-educated central characters of The Chosen. (It does not hurt that the novel is set in Brooklyn itself.). These students have a diverse set of reactions to the influence of their parochial education on their identities; their discussion of the themes The Chosen focuses on lets them draw upon their personal experiences in their reactions to it.

The selection of The Chosen for a philosophy class also makes an acute topical sense in these times, for the opening chapters permit an examination of the peculiar position of a minority culture–one made up of refugees and their descendants–surrounded by a dominant one, one to which it feels it must prove itself in times of war and greater patriotism, even if at the cost of having to make adjustments to its dominant sense of priorities and norms. The use of a baseball game, the playing of which takes up the entire first chapter, allowed for a discussion of the intersections of nationalism and sport too–how and why does the sport field function as a proving ground for ideological claims?

I’ve often written on this blog on how fiction helps my teaching of philosophy; the opening weeks of this semester have offered a gratifying confirmation of that claim.

The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.

Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.

Cultural Associations Do Not Add Up

In reviewing Jonathan Lethem‘s Dissident Gardens (“Leftists in Jeopardy“, New York Review of Books, April 2014), Michael Greenberg writes:

Lethem’s impulse to display his knowingness, his “vernacular” expertise, as he calls it, his belief that “were’ surrounded by signs [and] our imperative is to ignore none of them engenders a narrative noise that drowns out the novel’s subtler chords. His characters become the sum total  of their cultural associations,  creatures of the zeitgeist, a form of determinism, that as determinism does, leaves little or no room for spontaneity and nuance. We know them by their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire.

Greenberg may be right that such ‘narrative noise…drowns out the novel’s subtler chords.’ But I do not know if the fundamental anxiety he expresses, that the characters subjected to such treatment become entirely relational–the “sum total of their cultural associations…with no room for spontaneity or nuance”–is all that worrisome or even perspicuous.

These associations and affiliations are expressions of taste, evidence of choices. These choices may display the very ‘spontaneity’ and ‘nuance’ whose absence Greenberg is bemoaning. We might know these characters by ‘their era, their affiliations, the music they listen to, and the products they boycott, or acquire’ but that does not mean the particular and peculiar way these are assembled by each individual may not be a ‘style’, a distinct signature, all its own.Greenberg seems to imagine such characters are entirely passive, merely bearing the impress of their cultures. But that would only be so if there is an assumption of, ironically enough, a certain ‘determinism’ on his part. These collections of ‘cultural associations,’ often very distinct from each other, present a different breeding ground for the various influences they subsequently encounter. Those interactions will often result in a quite unique character.

As but a trivial example, the temporal sequencing of these cultural adoptions may significantly affect the particular ‘sum total’; cultural choices and tastes do not follow some commutative law of addition. The teenager who discovers Slayer first, and then Black Sabbath later is very different from the one who listens to Black Sabbath first and finds Slayer later. The former finds his beloved thrashers have their provenance in classic heavy metal; the latter finds his beloved masters continue to live on in the homage paid them by contemporaries. The former may be tempted into an exploration of an older school of music; the latter may seek to find other bands’ expressions of a signature style. Their resultant journeys are likely to be very different. Or, if you prefer a more exalted example, those who read military histories of the Second World War first, and then later read those written by Herodotus, are likely to have a quite different reading experience from those who bring Herodotus to their reading of the Second World War histories.

Conformity is a genuine worry, but not quite in the way that Greenberg worries about it. The notion of a ‘sum total…of cultural associations’, in particular, strikes me as incoherent.

Theater As Instruction Manual For Domestic Strife

In Benjamin Kunkel‘s new play Buzz, a central character, Tom, holds forth on theater–he says “something interesting”:

TOM: The theater has a very ironic relationship to domestic life, don’t you think? Because what’s been the main preoccupation, for more than a hundred years? I’m thinking Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Pinter…About the biggest theme is the horror of conventional domestic arrangements. Even Hamm and Clov, Didi and Gogo, what are those guys if not married?….And all these spousal or couply relationships are revealed, in the theater, to consist of sterile dependency, mutual entrapment…Maybe some ritualized tragicomic bickering. Total horror show. And yet, what is the social role of theater? It’s a date, a romantic evening. For you and your partner or spouse. Couples come to the theater where they kind of peek, through the keyhole, into the butcher shop of their domestic lives, and then stand up and clap! Then they leave none the wiser and go have a late dinner with an overpriced bottle of wine. If there’s one thing the theater has consistently criticized, its conventional domestic arrangements, and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced–conventional domestic arrangements. The whole things’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but the counterproductiveness of culture. [italics in original]

The counterproductiveness here is that theater reinforces precisely those social realities that it, by dint of theatrical artifice, aims to critique. There is another aspect to this irony: theater does not merely ‘capture’ the social reality of the couple engaged in cohabitation, in conventional domesticity, it also provides models for how that domestic conflict may be conducted.

Those that quarrel on stage, sometimes with fiery declamation, sometimes with resentful mutterings, sometimes merely with the passive-aggressive gesture or presence or silence, they instruct us in the art of the domestic dispute. Our living-room, the bedroom, the kitchen, becomes our stage; we perform on it, our performances informed by a self-consciousness about the histrionics we employ. Those mannerisms, our vocal delivery, our body language, we may have received explicit and implicit instruction on them in the theater; we evaluate our effectiveness, our deployment of rhetoric, with an eye trained keenly by the performance of actors we have seen in action, in close-up and from a distance. The theater as carefully arranged and furnished stage for the depiction of domestic strife, as space for critical commentary on the human condition when suffered in close proximity to another human, does not merely reflect social reality; it constructs it as well.

When a domestic partner accuses another one of being ‘theatrical’ they speak a greater truth than they might imagine.

Note: The counterproductiveness that Tom speaks of here is related to, but not identical with, the skepticism about culture’s civilizing effects that George Steiner expressed–in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

The Seductive Appeal of ‘Education’

In reviewing Jill Lepore‘s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinion’s of Jane Franklin, a ‘biography’ of Benjamin Franklin‘s considerably less distinguished sibling, Susan Dunn writes:

The words “seduction” and “education” in fact share the same Latin root: ducere, to lead. Seduction leads astray (“se-”), while education leads out (“e”)—out of our unformed, primitive selves. Education civilizes us, prepares us for participation in society, in culture, in public service. Education opens the gates of the world. It provides the exit, the one way out. (‘The Other Franklin,’ The New York Review of Books, 24 October 2013)

Like just about any etymology lessons, this one is fascinating. Many–like me–might have noticed the orthographic similarity between ‘seduction’ and ‘education’ without pausing to inquire whether they might share in provenance.

For my present purposes, though, I am less interested in exploring this etymological connection than in inquiring further into the seductive appeal of education itself, one that Dunn elaborates as the primary reason for the wildly dissimilar achievements and lives of the Franklin siblings. At one pole is the phenomenally well-read Benjamin, at the other, the barely literate Jane. (Dunn helpfully provides several samples of her less than inspiring prose.) One sibling travels far and wide, literally and figuratively, acquiring a cosmopolitanism that would be the envy of many and ensuring a place for himself in any history of the times he lived in; the other remains stagnant in a provincial existence, destined for obscurity unless rescued by the attentions of a sympathetic writers committed to the construction of alternative histories. With such wildly disparate fates in store, who would not be convinced of the civilizing and prosperity-inducting effects of education? (Education appears correlated with longer lives too, as public health data seems to confirm.) If a flourishing life is our aim, then education seems the golden road to it.

This optimism though, seems destined to be tempered by the familiar skepticism about whether education–even if of the ‘right’, ‘classical’ variety–can form our ‘unformed’, ‘primitive’ selves in all the right ways, whether education, even as it ‘civilizes’ us, does a good enough job of driving out the uncivilized within us. for instance, here is George Steiner in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

This skepticism suggests we have conceived of ‘education’ a little too narrowly. Perhaps we have only included bookish and cultural indoctrination of various stripes under that rubric. In the process, we might have excluded the more nebulous ‘moral education’, a process the determination of whose contours still remains oppressively intractable.